Three wings may dismantle Ahrar al-Sham movement

Hassan Soufan, known as “Abu al-Baraa” (L) and Jaber Ali Basha (R ) (edited by Enab Baladi)

Hassan Soufan, known as “Abu al-Baraa” (L) and Jaber Ali Basha (R ) (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The Islamic Ahrar al-Sham movement, which has presence in the northern countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, has dismissed its leader, Amer al-Sheikh, and the entire leadership council and has appointed a new commander.

A statement published on the movement’s account on Telegram on 8 November included the decision to appoint Youssef al-Hamwi, dubbed: Abu Suleiman, as the new general commander of the Ahrar al-Sham.

Al-Hamwi is one of the founders of the movement, along with its leaders, who were killed in an explosion whose cause is still unknown in 2014.

The Islamic movement expressed its intention to communicate with what it described in the Telegram statement as “the sons of the movement,” to work on forming a new leadership council according to the movement’s charter and to return the situation to the “pre-coup” period.

A group of the movement’s largest brigades and formations were mentioned in the statement, such as the al-Iman Brigade, Khattab Brigade, The Elite Forces of al-Adiyat Brigade, al-Sham Brigade, and al-Hamza Battalion.

Leaders dismiss each other

The dismissal of Ahrar al-Sham’s leader was preceded by an announcement by a faction in the movement disavowing six former leaders in it.

This reinforced the internal rift that had started among decision-makers in Ahrar al-Sham several years ago and transformed it after it was one of the largest opposition armed groups to factions whose influence is limited to supporting the influential people in northwestern Syria.

Ahrar al-Sham’s statement also expelled Jaber Ali Basha, the former commander-in-chief of the movement, as well as commanders Ali al-Omar, Muhannad al-Masri, Mohammad Rabi’ al-Safadi, Abu Haydara al-Raqqa, and Khaled Abu Anas.

Following the declaration of disavowal of the former leaders of the movement, Basha responded via Telegram with a statement in which he said that the disavowal of the commanders was issued by the wing within Ahrar Al-Sham, run by Hassan Soufan and that it does not represent the movement.

The current dispute that has surfaced in the movement is not new, but its roots go back more than two years, when the movement’s brigades, which were considered one of the largest factions of the armed opposition before 2017, split over Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) ’s attack on the movement, which divided its brigades into supporters and opponents of the HTS.

Beginning of the End

Similar to the HTS, which is dominated by an organizational nature, Ahrar al-Sham was one of the most disciplined factions in northwestern Syria.

At the height of its power in 2015, it included more than 20,000 fighters, according to what former movement leaders told Enab Baladi.

The movement’s fragility became clear with the HTS attack on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which was run by Ahrar al-Sham and was a major source of its funding, as its factions were divided between neutral and rejecting the fight against HTS, while another part retired from fighting.

The military operations ended with a truce that stipulated a cease-fire and the formation of the National Front for Liberation faction, whose mainstay was Ahrar al-Sham, along with other factions previously attacked by the HTS in the region.

On 21 July 2017, HTS advanced towards Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which was within the areas of influence of Ahrar al-Sham, after HTS rejected an initiative by Ahrar al-Sham, which called for a “binding and comprehensive vision that takes into account the political, military and civil rights of all parties.”

Divided formations

Ahrar al-Sham has a regional character over its factions as the al-Iman Brigade included about 3000 fighters, the vast majority of whom were from the city of Hama, and it was one of the movement’s largest formations.

While the Badr Brigade, which is the largest brigade in the movement, is formed mostly from Idlib governorate.

While the al-Muhajiroun wal-Ansar Brigade gathered fighters from the al-Ghab Plain region in the north of Hama and for the movement’s Badia desert sector, most of its fighters were from the eastern regions of Syria.

Wael Alwan, researcher at Jsoor for Studies Center, told Enab Baladi that the fighting of Ahrar al-Sham with the HTS almost led the movement to disintegrate in 2017 and its merging into new formations with other factions saved it from it, but at the same time, the movement formations did not get rid of the regional allegiance.

According to Alwan, the movement’s territorial doctrine led to the suspension of its largest brigades from membership in the movement, especially with Ahrar al-Sham’s involvement in the Tahrir al-Sham project in northwestern Syria.

Before the blow it received from the HTS, the movement tried to accelerate its internal transformation process by raising the flag of the Syrian revolution in its areas of influence with the slogan “The Project of a Nation,” in addition to its adoption of the unified Arab law for the judiciary in all its courts in Syria.

In 2018, Ahrar al-Sham joined the National Front for Liberation, which is affiliated with the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).

At that time, the National Front, HTS, and Jaysh al-Izza all joined the al-Fateh al-Mubeen operations room.

Soufan’s wing close to Tahrir al-Sham 

Internal disputes within Ahrar al-Sham continued with its leader, Jaber Ali Pasha, insisting on rejecting any attempts to isolate the general leadership of the movement, which was met by the rise of its former leader, Hassan Soufan, and his wing, trying to drag it into a new military structure.

The commander-in-chief of the movement, which joined the National Front for Liberation, appeared in November 2020, confirming that the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham, represented by him, is “the only legitimate leadership of the movement, and it is still continuing its work.”

He pointed out that the movement will not be discouraged by “the betrayals of some from pursuing the tasks entrusted to it.”

He affirmed the rejection and condemnation of the “repeated illegal coup attempts, which are being carried out by the military leader of the movement, Hassan Soufan, with the support of some personalities inside and outside the movement, who was previously dismissed because of his mistakes and tyranny at work.”

Ali Pasha’s speech was followed by Hassan Soufan’s announcement of his “temporary” acceptance of the mandate of the former commander of the military wing, Abu al-Mundhir, and the management of the movement’s affairs during the current stage.

Soufan considered that his acceptance came to “establish the existence of the movement, reunify it, arrange the ranks of its youth, and form a leadership council for the movement during the coming period that includes influential parties from all regions.”

The researcher, Alwan, considered that the leadership of the movement, represented by a wing led by Soufan, moved towards “realism” through its alliance with the HTS, which has become the largest military force in the region, and considers it a “fait accompli.”

The most prominent role of this movement was when it recently supported Tahrir al-Sham in its fight against the Third Corps of the National Army and took over the areas it controlled in the city of Afrin and its countryside.

Soufan, also known as Abu al-Baraa, spent about 12 years in the Syrian military Saydnaya prison. He was released in an exchange deal that the movement conducted with the regime in December 2016.

The person responsible for the deal was al-Farouq Abu Bakr, a senior commander in the Ahrar al-Sham who represented the opposition in the Aleppo agreement.

The regime kept Soufan in Saydnaya prison, despite the release of dozens of those affiliated with the Islamic movements in 2011, who became leaders of the first ranks of the Islamic factions and formations, including Zahran Alloush, founder of Jaysh al-Islam, Hassan Abboud, founder of Ahrar al-Sham and Ahmed al-Sheikh (Abu Issa) founder of Suqour al-Sham.

In August 2017, Ahrar al-Sham appointed Soufan, who was the head of the movement’s Shura Council, as its new general commander, according to a statement from the council.

Counter wing, not compatible with HTS

Ahrar al-Sham formed a council that it called the Leadership Council In 2021, which consisted of 12 people after the escalation of disputes within its ranks.

A member of the movement’s leadership council, Abu Mohammad al-Shami, told Enab Baladi at the time that the leadership council consists of 13 members headed by the leader of the movement, Amer al-Sheikh, who formed the council by direct appointment, according to the powers granted to him within the agreement that ended the recent internal dispute in the movement.

However, after al-Sheikh took over the movement’s leadership, he turned against its project, siding with the HTS, as Ahrar al-Sham commanders accused him of putting the movement “in a state of clinical death,” after it was the largest faction in the region.

The administration of al-Sheikh caused the dissolution of the former Shura Council and took a stand against Tahrir al-Sham, controlling the movement and abandoning its project.

The movement’s Shura Council, which was excluded by a decision of its leadership, took a stand against the movement’s abandonment of its own project and its merger with Tahrir al-Sham, and its transformation into a puppet in the hands of the Tahrir al-Sham, which still directs some of its factions to this day.

This council had an impact when it incited brigades operating in Ahrar al-Sham to suspend their membership in the movement, most notably the al-Iman Brigade, in objection to the rapprochement with the Tahrir al-Sham, in addition to the departure of the Badr Brigade, the Abbas Brigade, and the Sharqi groups In Idlib, the Aleppo Gathering, and its joining the al-Jabha al-Shamiyyah north of Aleppo.

This incitement ended with the removal of Amer al-Sheikh from the leadership of the movement and large groups of Ahrar al-Sham suspending their work with the sector led by the al-Sheikh, supporting its new leadership represented by Youssef al-Hamwi (Abu Suleiman).

Neutral wing

With the exacerbation of internal disputes between the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham, groups and personalities of the factions refrained from intervening in the dispute, including those who realized their inability to make a difference that might change the movement’s future, so they decided to remain neutral in the dispute, and the movement’s implicit affiliation with Tahrir al-Sham.

Alwan believes that adopting a position of neutrality on the part of this wing is due to its rejection of what the movement has turned into and its affiliation with Tahrir al-Sham. However, the lack of an alternative project for it led its members to adopt a position of neutrality with regard to the movement’s currents.

While this wing broke its neutrality by joining the latest statement, which acknowledged the appointment of Youssef al-Hamwi, nicknamed Abu Suleiman, as general leader of the movement, and dismissed Abu Obeida Qatana and his deputy, Abu Muhammad al-Wadi, from its leadership.

The Ahrar al-Sham movement was established in late 2011 from the merger of four Syrian opposition factions, namely the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, the Islamic al-Tali’ah Group, the Islamic Fajr Movement, and the al-Iman Fighting Brigades. 

The movement adopted the slogan “The Project of a Nation,” which was later changed to “The Revolution of the People” after Hashem al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber) took over its leadership in 2014.

 

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